Preparing for the future of the Kerry and communion story

Here are some dates to mark on the God-beat calendar. On June 17, Sen. John "What would JFK do?" Kerry is planning a fundraising event in posh Aspen, followed by several events in Denver. This is especially interesting since this visit falls during a June 14-19 U.S. Catholic Bishops gathering at the Inverness Hotel in suburban Denver. As veteran Rocky Mountain News religion reporter Jean Torkelson noted, this quiet meeting "may be the most misnamed 'spiritual retreat' in history."

This mile-high prayer meeting will be hosted by Archbisop Charles Chaput of Denver, with, it would be assumed, the symbolic help of Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan. Please note that neither of these men has been silent on the issue of abortion and other Catholic moral teachings during this election year.

Sheridan is making news at the New York Times and, thus, around the world with a new pastoral letter in which he argues that American Catholics -- voters, not just politicos -- should not receive communion if they support politicians who vote for abortion rights, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or stem-cell research. Laurie Goodstein of the Times reports:

Several bishops in the United States have warned that they will deny communion to Catholic politicians who fail to stand with the church, but Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs is believed to be the first to say he will extend the ban to Catholic voters.

"Anyone who professes the Catholic faith with his lips while at the same time publicly supporting legislation or candidates that defy God's law makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic," Bishop Sheridan wrote.

In a telephone interview, the bishop said: "I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a statement about church teaching."

While stopping just short of a definitive stand on the communion issue, Archbishop Chaput has continued to defend the church's right to address the moral lives of its own communicants, as well as events in the public square. In a recent column, with the headline "Thanks for all the help, you religious folks -- now pipe down," Chaput notes that these issues always arise during election year. But it seems to be OK for Catholic bishops to speak out on some issues, but not others.

Religious witness has always played an active role in American political life. When the powerful like what the Church does, she's "prophetic." When they don't, she's "intrusive." Have we so quickly forgotten the civil rights movement? Do we remember Cesar Chavez? Removing religion from public policy debates and the voting booth would make us shallow, ignorant, perhaps "peaceful" -- but not safe.

It will be almost impossible for Kerry and the bishops to quietly occupy the same Colorado zip code without a wave of media coverage. This means that fair-minded journalists must find a way to find and accurately quote Catholics on both sides of this highly complex and emotional issue. Right now, many journalists seem to be assuming that Catholics have a civil right to take communion and that bishops have no right to speak out about sacramental issues if they have liberal politicians who kneel at their altars.

Will journalists have the courage to quote articulate people on both sides? I raise this question because of a recent edition of Religion Link, that online aid for journalists prepared by the Religion Newswriters Association. In addition to offering tips on covering the religious right -- no sign of the religious left, however -- it includes a set of national and regional resources on the Catholic communion story.

While there is an element to subjectivity to this statement, it seems to me that the RNA list of experts favors the progressive side of this issue at least 12-1. So I wrote an outspoken Catholic traditionist and asked her to review the Religion Link materials. Helen Hitchcock was not amused.

The list of "suggested resource" people recommended by the religion writers reveals both "liberal" and geographical bias. One of the few Catholics west of the Mississippi on the list is Dominican Father Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology located on the campus of St. Louis University. Father Bouchard was one of the organizers of a dissident group, "Faithful St. Louis" (recently it affiliated with "Voice of the Faithful).

Father Bouchard publicly defends "gay" priests and seminarians. ... Since St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke is one of the bishops most frequently mentioned in stories on this issue, it is surprising that the only name on the list of scholars from this area is a priest known for his public dissent from Catholic teachings on a range of issues.

It was also interesting to note that feminist Mary Jo Weaver of the University of Indiana makes the resource list, but there is no sign of a traditional Catholic voice such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University. In terms of publications, the list focuses on Commonweal, America and the National Catholic Reporter, with only one conservative option -- the National Catholic Register, which carries the baggage of the Legionaries of Christ. Where is, for example, the Catholic World Report?

It is crucial that journalists find solid, articulate people on both sides of this issue because -- with events like the Denver scrum on the horizon -- it certainly isn't going to go away. Turning to a veteran Catholic commentator, Goodstein noted:

In the absence of a unified national position, individual bishops are producing widely diverging directives, causing widespread confusion, said Russell Shaw, Washington correspondent for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor and a former spokesman for the bishops.

"There's probably a rather small number of bishops who are strongly in favor of denying communion," Mr. Shaw said. "Probably a somewhat larger but not overwhelming number rather strongly oppose doing that. And the third and far away largest group are those who just wish the whole issue would go away."

Which means it is unlikely that the issue will go away. There is fire under all of this smoke.

By the way, has anyone asked any questions about confession?

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